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Reducing Stress among Students

By Neal A. Whitman ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education The purpose of this report is to help college faculty increase students' learning by reducing stress among students. Because this report addresses the role of teachers and students, it is helpful first to explore the relationship between teaching and learning. The relationship between teacher and learner essentially poses problems of human relations. Teachers bring more than knowledge to the relationship; they are motivators, experts, judges. Teachers and learners share responsibility for learning, and some question whether "teaching" has occurred if no "learning" occurred. Studies of teaching that produces the most learning suggest that "effective" teachers use an analytical and synthetic approach to the subject matter, organize the material well to make it clear, and establish rapport with their students. Most studies identify enthusiasm as important in promoting students' learning. The key seems to be to make college courses challenging but not threatening. HOW DOES STRESS AFFECT LEARNING? Many stress models emphasize a "mismatch" between the individual and his or her environment. Both too little and too much stress inhibit learning. Stress is difficult to define because individuals react to it very differently, and a situation that is stressful for one person may not be for another. Further, stressed individuals vary widely in the effectiveness of their coping. Some college students, when stressed by academic demands, use ineffective mechanisms for coping. They may use "defensive avoidance"; for example, avoiding studying and putting off writing assignments. Teachers can help such students develop more effective mechanisms for coping through "stress inoculation"--managing their courses so that students have information about what to expect, giving feedback on their progress, and providing a degree of control over course activities. WHAT IS THE VALUE OF FEEDBACK AND CONTROL? Feedback is information about current performance that can be used to improve future performance. When given properly, feedback can encourage positive stress that motivates students to action and can discourage the negative stress that inhibits action. Teachers can take specific steps to give effective feedback: (1) helping students know where they stand, (2) setting up "learning loops," (3) providing written comments on students' work, (4) testing often enough, and (5) arranging personal meetings to discuss students' work. Having a personal sense of control is an important factor in reducing stress. When students do not know what to expect in their courses, they feel out of control. Teachers can help students have a greater sense of control by using requests rather than commands, giving students choices in course requirements, explaining assignments so students know their purpose, involving students in the design of examinations, and soliciting and using feedback from students to improve courses and teaching. College teachers who can effectively use feedback and control in their classroom create a climate ripe for learning. Students are relaxed but motivated to learn when they have an instructor who provides direction and feedback and who is willing to accept it in return. WHAT IS THE VALUE OF INTERACTION BETWEEN FACULTY AND STUDENTS? Studies of college teaching support the view that the frequency and quality of teachers' contact with students, inside and outside the classroom, affect students' involvement in their own learning. Positive teacher-student relations have been linked to students' satisfaction with college, their educational aspirations, and their academic achievement. And when students perceive their teachers as partners in the educational process, they are more likely to take on new and difficult tasks. To improve their relationships with students and enhance students' learning, teachers can provide structure at the onset of a course, encourage class participation, get to know students by name, mobilize student tutors and study groups, use appropriate humor and persona stories, be "professionally intimate," be accessible outside of class, develop advising skills, and be open to the role of mentor. In general, students feel less stress and cope more effectively with stress if they feel they belong to the academic community. Faculty can play a key role in introducing and welcoming students to that community. WHAT IS THE VALUE OF STRESS AWARENESS?